No man left behind. It’s a sacred concept that only members of the military community can really understand and it’s the concept that drove retired Sgt. Toby Miller to setup a GoFundMe page for a complete stranger, a brother-in-arms.
Miller, who served in Afghanistan and returned home both physically and mentally wounded, has spent the last several years following the story of fellow soldier MCpl. Collin Fitzgerald. The story left an impression on Miller.
“The whole time you’re watching this stuff go down in the courts you think I’d like to be able to help this brother out and there’s nothing you can do,” said Miller.
Fitzgerald’s story began in 2006 when the Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry member was deployed to Afghanistan. The heroic actions taken by Fitzgerald during this time would lead him to receive a Medal of Valour, but the memories of the loss he witnessed would outweigh any other experiences from that deployment. Fitzgerald returned home from Afghanistan a changed man and was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in 2009.
“I went to war and came back and was living in hell,” explained Fitzgerald.
As he went deeper down the dark road of PTSD, he turned towards alcohol and drugs and even carried out a plan to commit suicide by cop.
Since then, he’s had a series of unfortunate, and often unfounded, run-ins with the law and was accused of several crimes he did not commit in 2014. Though The Crown withdrew its unfounded charges in the fall of 2016, Fitzgerald has been left with a debt of more than $200,000.
His legal troubles also left him alienated from his daughter.
“I lost all my rights as a father, and she lost all her rights as a child, being in the guardianship of her father,” said Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald has since been reconnected with his daughter and spent Christmas 2016 with her for the first time in three years.
However, his financial burden from his legal troubles meant he didn’t have money to buy his daughter any presents.
“I had absolutely no money, no way of ascertaining any type of Christmas gifts for my daughter,” recalled Fitzgerald.
He then reached out to Jim Lowther from VETS Canada who immediately swept in to provide financial assistance, assistance that could help Fitzgerald buy food, presents, and gas to pick up his daughter who lives an hour and a half away.
“Like we have for so many other Veterans, VETS Canada was able to immediately provide Collin with the assistance he needed. We were happy to assist him over the Christmas period to ensure that his Christmas was a little bit better and most importantly, that he could celebrate the holidays with his daughter. Collin was one of over 110 Veterans who VETS Canada assisted in the month of December in many different ways, from providing a roof over their head to helping them in their daily lives. VETS Canada is proud to have made a difference for Collin and his family,” said Lowther in a statement.
Another person who stepped in to help Fitzgerald during this time was long-time friend Michael Blais of Canadian Veterans Advocacy. Blais has been a friend to Fitzgerald since his arrest in 2014 and has provided him financial and emotional support.
“We’ve attempted to maintain personal contact to let him know he’s not alone,” said Blais.
Maintaining that social support is something Blais believes is vital.
“I’ve always believed bringing those who are isolated bringing those who are experiencing consequences after being released is vital,” noted Blais.
News of Fitzgerald’s Christmas time hardship reached Sgt. Miller who realized he could finally do something to help.
“When this came through I sat aside and thought this is just financial, this can be fixed. I can help,” said Miller.
Miller contacted a fellow veteran and after some research setup a GoFundMe page for the complete stranger.
“I couldn’t imagine being in that position. Especially after having served and given to the country and here you are. You can’t do Christmas for your kids. That just struck me as, of course, completely wrong,” remembered Miller.
As a fellow combatant against PTSD, Miller understands that financial pressure can add to the mental stress.
“It just absolutely increases the issue for you. You can’t get better,” said Miller.
In the last few weeks, the two strangers have established a bond, and now Miller and Fitzgerald speak every few days.
The support is something Fitzgerald appreciates.
“He’s another Canadian who wanted to step up and help,” said Fitzgerald.
Fundraising for Fitzgerald will now be taken on by Wounded Warriors Canada instead of GoFundMe. This will ensure that more of the money can go straight to Fitzgerald.